When your team fires off an 11-0-1 month like the Coyotes did in February, moving them from tied for 11th in the Western Conference on Feb. 1 to leading the Pacific Division and holding down the third seed as of today, and you're tied for fifth in the NHL in goals scored, the attention is going to come.
"I understand this is Phoenix and we don't get too much coverage like teams like [New York] Rangers or Toronto or Canadian teams, but that's fine with us," said Vrbata after practice on Friday. "Before the season everybody predicts we will finish last in the league. It's kind of cool to prove everybody wrong."
This is Vrbata's second stint with the Coyotes. After putting up 27 goals and 56 points in 2007-08, he signed a 3-year, $9 million with the Tampa Bay Lightning. That move was short-lived as after just 18 games, Vrbata asked out of his contract so he could move back to his native Czech Republic and be with his wife who was dealing with issues related to her pregnancy. Everything ended up fine for the Vrbatas and the following season he was back with the Coyotes scoring 24 goals.
Now settled in Phoenix, this season Vrbata has already set a career high in goals with 30 and is three points away from a personal best in points. If you were putting together a list of potential Hart Trophy finalists to join Evgeni Malkin and Henrik Lundqvist in Las Vegas come June, you could make an argument Vrbata's name should at least be in the discussion.
We spoke to Vrbata about the Coyotes' hot February, his success in Phoenix, visiting fans at Jobing.com Arena, and more.
Q. The team goes 11-0-1 in the month of February. Was there one thing that clicked that helped drive the team's success?
VRBATA: The main this is we got healthy around the All-Star break. Before the break, our schedule was still a little crazy with lots of travel and injuries we had to key guys. So after the break we got healthy and had a couple practices where worked on our game and kind of took it from there.
Is the confidence in the room at its highest point all season right now?
Oh yeah. When you win 11 or 12 in a row, you feel confident. It was just in some games where earlier in the season we were in lots of close games, and [we'd] lose by 1 goal, or lose in overtime or lose in a shootout. After the All-Star break it seems like even if we were down two goals or three goals, we can comeback and turn the game around and we can win all those close games. I think the feeling is actually pretty good right now.
Through all that winning, your GM, Don Maloney, goes out and picks up Antoine Vermette. What kind of boost has he brought?
Around the All-Star break we lost [Martin] Hanzal and [Boyd] Gordon, so we were missing two big centermen. Everybody thought we could use a centerman, so it was a good trade by Don. Antoine, he's a great player. He's not old, but he's got experience. He can play the style of game we want to play. I think he'll big a help for us.
Mike Smith has been a big factor in the team's success. You were with him in Tampa for that short while. Have you noticed anything with him that's changed in terms of his approach to the game now?
We know that he had a tough season last year when he got sent down for a period of time. Then when he signed with us, having a history with [head coach Dave Tippett] and having [Sean Burke] as a goaltender coach here has helped him a lot. He's been unbelievable for us so far. He's kept us in lots of games. Last month, he won 11 straight starts so that tells you something. I think the style of play we play as a team kind of helps the goaltender, but it goes both ways. We help him as a team the way we play and he helps us making big saves. I think it was the same with [Ilya] Bryzgalov the last couple of years where he was really good for us, but that style of play we play also helps the goaltenders a little bit.
[Laughs] Yeah, I can't complain about the warm weather. When I got traded here from Chicago, playing under Wayne [Gretzky], I really enjoyed the guys in the dressing room and the people around the team. We like it here as a family. Everything's been the same way now this last couple of years. I like the guys in the dressing room, coaches and the people around the team. It's a comfortable place for me.
Talk to me about Ray Whitney. The guy is 39 years old and still producing at a high level. What have you learned from playing with him?
It's amazing. Everybody talks about these old guys like [Teemu] Selanne, [Nicklas] Lidstrom, [Jaromir] Jagr, but I think he's right up there with them. His numbers are proof of that. Everybody can see what he's doing on the ice, but when you watch him what he does off the ice to keep himself in shape it's very impressive. It's probably not easy to keep yourself in this kind of shape when you're 39-40 years old.
The off-ice stuff about the ownership has been hovering for the past three years. At this point, do you guys still talk about it in the room?
I wouldn't say that we don't talk about it or we don't think about it. I think everybody has to deal with it in their own way because that's affecting their careers or families. I don't think it's a distraction in the dressing room because as you said, this is the third year we have to deal with it. We've kind of learned how not to think about it. We know as players it's not in our control. All we can focus on is playing hockey. If we have success on the ice, I think that'll help the situation. Everybody here wants to keep the team in Phoenix and stay here, so hopefully we can help it by playing good hockey and making the playoffs and doing something there.
When certain teams visit you, they bring a considerable fanbase into your arena. When you see those sizeable crowds of opposing fans in your building, does that serve as a little extra motivation for that game?
Yeah, it's a good atmosphere. The fans go back and forth. If the opponent scores, they start cheering. When we score, our fans cheer for us. Maybe it's a little extra motivation overall when you have a full building.
You've already set your career-high in goals and you're a couple points away from a career-high in points, what's going right for you this season?
I think that all four seasons I've been in Phoenix, I think I've put up good numbers. The first season I scored 27 goals. Second year 24 and last year 19. Phoenix is a really good place for me. This season I had a slow start with one goal in the first nine games. I didn't feel too bad about my overall game, but I had to just stick with it and hope for some lucky breaks and that's what happened this year. After the slow start, pucks started going in for me and just got on a roll. Playing with Marty Hanzal for pretty much the fourth year and second year with Ray Whitney on our line, I think that chemistry was there last year and same thing this year. So the credit goes to my teammates.
How different of a coach is Dave Tippett from any other one you've had in your NHL career?
When you look at our team, you don't see any superstars like [Evgeni] Malkin or [Steven] Stamkos or [Alex] Ovechkin or whoever scores 50 goals and we still make the playoffs in a tough Western Conference. This year, we're right there also. He's bringing out the best out of everybody. He's a great coach to play for. He knows how to treat players, what to say to [certain] guys. I think he's one of the best coaches in the league.
Like you said you don't have a superstar in the lineup, but you've got a good mix of veterans and young players who chip in. Is this the most balanced team you've played on?
Yeah, probably. When I was starting in Colorado, there was all superstars there when you think about [Joe] Sakic, [Peter] Forsberg, [Milan] Hejduk, [Chris] Drury, [Rob] Blake, [Adam] Foote, that team was like an All-Star team. That was a pretty good team to be on. This team is totally different in that we don't have too many superstars. We have lots of good players like Shane Doan, Ray Whitney, Mike Smith, Keith Yandle, but there's not just one guy we count on as a team. When we're successful we have to play as a team. Everybody has to chip in and that's what we're doing over the last month.
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy
- Phoenix Coyotes
- Radim Vrbata